A shy, soft-spoken Michigan teen who suffers from autism secretly became his school’s mascot in order to connect with his peers and come out of his shell.
Most students at Grand Blanc West Middle School think the jolly tiger is just Victor E. Bobcat. But he’s really seventh-grader Andrese Duke.
“Before I was the mascot I didn’t really find anything confident about me,” he told MLive. “I was just a regular kid.”
Now Duke says he loves cheering people up, walking around the school and giving kids high-fives. As he walks through the halls, students squeal and many hug him.
“He had a lot of problems socially,” said his mother Adrian Duke. “He more so liked to stay to himself a lot. That was like one of the biggest things that me and my husband worried about with him. You know, worrying about how he would adapt just in life.”
“The biggest challenge he has overcome – and with most autistic children – is the social communication amongst his peers,” said special education teacher Raymond Haden. “And I think what has contributed a lot to that is the attention and that sense of purpose, that sense of importance. And it’s spilling over into other areas of his life.”
Duke got the idea to become mascot during an annual meeting between teachers and his family in a room where the mascot costume was stored.
"When he expressed an interest in that we started looking at each other – okay, this could possibility be a fit for Andrese," Haden said.
He’s been the mascot now for five months.
The person picked to wear the costume has always been a mystery at the school. Some students think it’s a teacher wearing the outfit.
"It gave him a purpose,” his mother said. “He's always loved school, but it gave him somewhat of a purpose and responsibility. He took it so serious, like it was his job. This is really something big. He's such a special little boy."
In 2012, Keith Allen, a psychologist at the Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, published a study that showed costumes could help people with high-functioning autism become ideal sports mascots.
“The costume itself is sort of an insulator,” Allen told Wired. “It is easier to socialize when trained in the costume, because it’s a little bit safer environment.”